The first time the Burning Flames performed in Miami, in March of 1990 at, naturally enough, the Cameo Theatre, they played for six hours. Wouldn't stop. Each time the lilting, synthesized strains of "Workey Workey" sprung out of that soca-funk jam, you had to keep moving your feet. This Saturday the Flames'll encore at Washington Square in support of their new Mango Records album Dig.
The Square, usually home to every kind of rock and roll, might not seem a likely venue for lilting Caribbean rhythms. But then the Burning Flames are not a typical calypso band. They play a rocking mix of soca, salsa, zouk, reggae, rock, and funk they call speed-soca, or C-Funk (the C for Caribbean). But you could call it P-calypso (P for punk), or even hard-core soca. The Flames are like a garage band gone eccentric. The closest North American equivalents would be Fishbone or Red Hot Chili Peppers - they've got some of the same mix of high speed, funk bottom, punk attitude, wild style, and humor. The Flames also exhibit an in-your-face irreverance and a stubborn refusal to fit easily into any one musical category.
The band is a family affair, with brothers "Onyan" Edwards (guitar), "Oungku" Edwards (keyboards), "Bubb-i" Edwards (bass), and nephew "Foxx" Watkins (drums). Speaking by phone from his home in Antigua, Oungku Edwards says his band has grown since they began playing together in their early teens. "We used to play a lot of hard rock and smash the equipment, old stuff. Then we put it back together again."
Influenced by punk, they played heavy metal in colorful mohawks, weird make-up, and skin-tight pants. "It got us so much more attention," Oungku explains. "We started elevating much faster than the other groups doing the same old thing. People used to come and see us because we'd jump around, not stand around like statues like the other bands. It was a lot of humor involved; we'd give them a good laugh, a good cheer."
That cheer didn't pay the rent, but their dedication to being different, particularly in Oungku's arranging, caught the ear of soca star Arrow. Oungku worked with Arrow for several years, writing the music for his hits "Tiney Winey" and the international smash "Hot Hot Hot." Bubb-i and Onyan had been making a living playing on cruise ships, a gig that ended abruptly when they poked fun at a Scandinavian crew member who pronounced "crew" as "clew." Outnumbered and somewhat nervous about getting tossed overboard mid-cruise, the brothers made a quick exit at Freeport. Luckily, Oungku was organizing Arrow's tours by then, and he was able to bring his siblings on board.
In 1985, as the Edwardses were taking off for a fortnight in England, they visited a local radio station to drop off a four-track recording of a rejected song Oungku had written for Arrow. When they returned home, people were pointing and talking about them. The band thought it was because of their bizarre costumes (which included English police uniforms). It turned out "Styley Tight" had become the number-one song in Antigua. Subsequent records, such as "Burning Flames Rule," "Light Years Ahead," and "Rysh and Dutty," also charted, albeit only in Antigua, St. Vincent, Barbados. "Our sound was totally different," Oungku says. "Everybody couldn't figure out what it was."
But the prestige markets of Jamaica and Trinidad, with their strong local music scenes, weren't paying attention. The Flames' music was too frenetic for ears accustomed to the slower rhythms of reggae and classic calypso. So in 1989, with those markets in mind, the band sat down and wrote "Workey Workey" and "Island Girl." Though they expected "Island Girl" to be the hit, it was "Workey Workey," with its teasing synthesizer riff and rocking beat, that became a monster success, not just in the Caribbean, but in South America, England, and West Indian neighborhoods in North America.
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That same year the Flames played at the Caribe Musicale Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, a four-day musical marathon organized by former Cameo Theatre director Paco de Onis, who had heard the Flames with Arrow and decided to book them. (De Onis soon became so enamored of the Flames, he says, that he left the Cameo to manage them.) At the festival they played everything from "Workey Workey" to medleys of songs by Elvis Presley, Pat Benatar, and Rod Stewart. It was during a second appearance, at the 1990 festival, that they caught the ear of producer Joe Galdo, which led to their current Mango Records release.
Who knows if the Burning Flames' strange approach and on-stage antics will ever break them out of the "ethnic" mold. They've just completed the first part of the Dig tour, playing New York, Boston, D.C., New Orleans, L.A., England. Response has been enthusiastic, and their Miami date marks the start of the Midwest and Canadian leg of the tour. In 1991 they earned the "Best Band in the Caribbean" award at the Annual Caribbean Music Awards in New York City.
The brothers keep things low-key offstage. They don't drink or smoke, and according to de Onis, their main concerns are music, girls, and food, with a little TV-watching thrown in. And what's Oungku listening to in preparation for the next record? Indian music, of course.
THE BURNING FLAMES perform at 9:00 p.m. Saturday at Washington Square, 645 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 531-9353. Tickets are $10.